San Francisco Street Art Battles Against Gentrification

Nikkala Kovacevic, Reporter

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You are walking down the hilly streets of San Francisco, your view filled with brightly colored buildings, storefronts and murals. Beneath the booming sights and sounds of the city, you can feel a history that transcends the stereotypical modern and progressive image of San Francisco. San Francisco has long acted as the cultural hub of the Bay Area; tourists visit from far and wide to experience the diverse districts, characterized by a long history of immigration and cultural identity.

But the fast moving tech companies that are sweeping through the Bay Area, such as Google, Yahoo and Genentech, threaten the ability of these long-standing districts to function in a modern world. Displacement and gentrification pose a large threat to districts more rooted in San Francisco’s history. 

Areas like Chinatown and the Mission District have distinct characters due to the influx of immigrants that founded them. As these cultures gradually assimilate to the modern San Francisco, one of the most powerful forces keeping them alive is art. Street art specifically allows for a form of expression that is separate from corporate and commercial influence, with large murals throughout San Francisco acting as a universal language between locals and the public that preserve the diverse culture slowly leaving the city. 

Gentrification is caused by a disconnect between social classes in an effort to push districts more toward the middle class. San Francisco’s more historic districts are at a higher risk of displacement, due to developers looking to rehabilitate the more dilapidated parts of the city. According to UC Berkeley’s Urban Displacement Project, locations such as Chinatown, Japantown and the Mission District are at a much higher risk and are currently undergoing much higher levels of displacement than more newly developed areas of the city. 

This jeopardizes the preexisting cultures of the areas, as in many cases, residents have lived and worked out of these buildings for decades, and their displacement could majorly influence the city’s cultural identity. Street art is historically associated with rebellion from forms of art considered to be more sophisticated, an association that could lend itself well to a movement in which a similar distinction is made between wealthier companies and newcomers and San Francisco locals. Art has the capability of acting as a catalyst for conversation between those looking to displace locals and the locals themselves.

San Francisco native Mykah Turner, 26, an artist currently working in the Financial District, believes that street art will make a great contribution to combating gentrification.

“A lot of gentrification tends to ignore or overlook the identity of a neighborhood, of an area, and what art does, it’s one of the universal languages of expression,” Turner said.“If you see a picture on a wall or a mural, you’re able to, regardless of what language you speak or where you come from, garner an image, or garner an opinion about this image.”

As members of these communities begin to assimilate to modern culture and stray from tradition, art is used as a medium that surpasses the history that some may feel is confining. By combining tradition and modern art, cultures that are deemed as “old-fashioned” can effectively transition into modern times without the need to eradicate them from San Francisco entirely. 

Melissa Chen is the Office Manager at the Chinese Culture Center, and manages an art gallery devoted to expressing the Chinese experience in the many shapes and forms it takes. 

“All the art that we put in here is related to the Chinese diaspora, which relates to either Chinese immigrants or Chinese Americans, or even around the world. All of them are related to the narrative of ‘what are the different ways to be Chinese?’” Chen said. 

While developers and large companies will continue to have the power to sway the futures of aspects of San Francisco culture, art is a channel of expression that can outlast physical limits. As long as there are stories to be told, street art will be able to reflect them both the San Francisco population, but also visitors. Anyone is able to view and grasp something from a mural or even a piece of graffiti. These are public statements that can be taken in without having to persuade the target audience to listen, as they are simply seen when walking down the street.

“If you want to come into our territory, rather than trample over it and paint over it, see the colors, see the vibrance, and appreciate it and perhaps ingratiate yourself… The way I see it, it is a reminder that we’re out here, we’re always going to be here, and that art is always going to triumph over greed,” Turner said. 

With a culture that could only have been formed by the unique circumstances in which contrasting groups of people were brought together, San Francisco faces the question as to whether or not these cultures are worth preserving in order to ensure a positive future for the city. Yet it is the locals who bring the “vibrance” that causes the city to be unique, and without their freedom to express in the most accessible mediums, San Francisco may risk falling into the monotony it so greatly contrasts. 


About the Writer
Photo of Nikkala Kovacevic
Nikkala Kovacevic, Reporter

Nikkala is a rising senior at the Francis Parker School in San Diego, California. She is excited to help lead the staff at her school's magazine, the Scribe,...

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San Francisco Street Art Battles Against Gentrification